It’s no secret, at least to those of us living in Ithaca, that for a small town Ithaca has a plethora of places to eat–there are more restaurants per capita than NYC. What may be less well-known to residents is the opportunity to take a guided tour of some of these unique restaurants.
As an active foodie on Instagram, I came across Ithaca is Foodies, a company started by a couple of native Ithacans who love the town and its food so much that they decided to share their passion by giving walking food tours in town. I had never been on a food tour before, and this sounded like just the activity for me. I was able to attend the tour this past weekend and chat with co-founder Sarah Barden about the history and approach of the company.
Ithaca is Foodies gave its first tour this past May, and has run a public tour almost every Saturday since. The two founders have put extensive time and energy into the business, from its inception, to learning how to give a food tour, finding restaurants to participate, and practicing with test tours with friends and family.
The tour is modeled after other tours the founders attended or learned about: it’s 3 hours long, includes 5-6 tastings that add up to a full-course meal, and some historical and cultural points along the way. Sarah noted they wanted their approach to a food tour to take advantage of the wide variety of restaurants in Ithaca, so they chose places that fit different categories such as vegetarian/vegan, great dessert, and a farm-to-table focus. Sarah said the restaurants they chose have been incredibly helpful in collaborating and providing excellent service, which I saw firsthand on the tour.
The tasting stops were unique in cuisine, atmosphere, and insight we learned from the restaurant staff and Sarah, our tour guide. At each tasting we were given a description of what we would be trying, as well as a little background of the restaurant or eatery. The tastings were very diverse, ranging from a vegetarian appetizer, a vegan milkshake, Ethiopian food, beer and cider, olive oil and balsamic vinegar combinations, to a delicious dessert. Some stops were little cafes or casual eateries, while others were upscale restaurants, one of which we were given a tour of the kitchen and “behind the scenes” areas.
I’m somewhat of a picky eater, so was a little unsure I would like the food provided, but took advantage of the opportunity to try a variety of different cuisines. I would not typically choose a dish marketed as vegan or to go to an Ethiopian restaurant for an entire meal, but with a tasting I was able to try things I may never have otherwise experienced. And although I’ve spent four years in Ithaca, I had not previously been to the majority of the stops on the tour. The tour was a great way for me to see what else Ithaca has to offer besides the places I usually frequent. As a foodie, I especially appreciated the visits to independently owned restaurants and businesses, run by Ithaca locals, many using local ingredients and products.
The portion sizes of each tasting were large enough that I was never hungry, but spaced far enough apart so I wasn’t too full. Walking around Downtown also gave us some time to digest while our tour guide pointed out unique street art, and notable restaurants, shops and buildings we passed along the way.
I loved the historical and cultural aspects of the tour–I learned so many fun facts about places I’ve passed by or been to many times, but didn’t know had such a special history. It was fun to hear about the history of the Commons, the State Theater, the origin of Dewitt Mall, and how the ice cream sundae was invented right here in Ithaca. Our tour guide also told us about events that happen annually in Ithaca, giving us some insight into the culture, that we also saw ourselves in the bustle of Downtown on a Saturday afternoon.
Unfortunately, the tour season ends this coming weekend, as the tours are held rain or shine, but will begin again in May. The tours are given to only about 14 people at once, so sign up fast! The tour is $55 per person, which includes gratuity for the restaurants as well as all the tastings. Gifts cards for the tour are available too, and what better gift to give than food.
After trying so many great new places, you’ll likely want to go back. Your tour guide will give you a brochure with information about each eatery that has coupons on the back for a discount off a future purchase or part of a meal, good for the next month after your tour. This is an added bonus that will make it easy to go back to any places you really loved.
The Ithaca is Foodies culinary tour is great for students living in Ithaca who are looking for a unique afternoon activity, or for visiting parents and guests to experience a lot of what Ithaca has to offer all at once. Even if you aren’t a self-defined “foodie,” a food tour is a unique experience that many cities and towns don’t offer. Downtown Ithaca is a great place for such a tour, rich in history and delicious food that anyone can enjoy.
For more information, visit ithacaisfoodies.com and follow @IthacaIsFoodies on Instagram!